Monday, July 18, 2016

Mexico: Chiapas & the Yucatan Peninsula (February 2016)

We are trying to do some wrap-up blogging before our next European trip...and this is being posted from the Business Class lounge in Boston waiting for our trip to Europe. Why it didn't get posted sooner, who knows???  We may post one more about our trip to the Puebla in March...  but that may be very delayed...  The following was mostly written in February... but we've been so busy planning this trip to Europe, we postponed finishing it...  The Basic message: there's lots of great places to visit in Mexico!

You can view it as a new trip or a continuation of our 6+ month US Roadtrip.  Two of our Home Exchange partners chose to visit San Miguel in February so we had to "move on". The first guests arrived in time for the World Wide Writers Conference…an amazing event that brings in many renowned writers as key note speakers. We wanted to help with the conference. It turned out that our friends Bill & Judy were staying in the Campo (countryside) for a couple week and invited us to stay at their house, which is only a few blocks from ours. This gave us a home base for volunteering and taking in the Gail Sheey and John Perkins keynotes. Both were excellent.  

Five days later we joined a tour to Chiapas (the southern most and poorest state in Mexico.)

We flew into Villahermosa (in the state of Tabasco) which is more or less in the elbow of Mexico that leads to the Yucatan Peninsula. We then travelled by bus to Palenque where there is a modern town and there are the impressive Mayan ruins of a city that date from 200 BC to nearly 800 AD.

Palace & Observatory
Tomb of the Inscriptions
Per Wikipedia:  While Palenque is much smaller than the better known Tikal and Chichen Itza, "it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments." Historians now know much about life in 5C Palenque including the rivalry with the Calakmul from the nearby Yucatan.

We started by touring a museum replete with original works from the ancient site and copies of pieces now in European museums.  Key ruins include:

  • The Temple of Inscriptions which houses the tomb of Pakal (who ruled from 615 to 683) and Inscriptions that record approximately 180 years of the city's history.
  • The Palace, used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies…It was equipped with numerous large baths and saunas which were supplied with fresh water by an intricate water system.
  • The Observation Tower (likely used for astronomical purposes)

Palenque town has a small but pleasant tourist district with several restaurants and hotels. We especially enjoyed our grilled fish at Feliz Huachinanago. Others enjoyed their meals at Maya Canada.

While walking around town Pat noticed an odd looking tree.  The umbrella-like leaves are about 15 inches across. The bloom looks like a clump of little fingers. Our guide later revealed to us that this is a hallucinogenic. Sorry folks, we can't recall the name of the plant.

From Palenque we drove to San Cristobal by way of two impressive waterfalls.

12 miles from Palenque, the 100+ foot high Cascada Misol Ha has a path that leads behind the falls to a cave that can be explored (for an additional fee).

Further along the route is Cascadas de Agua Azul,  a series of brilliantly white falls, passing over a range of brown & white rock formations into alluring aqua colored pools. Along the side of the falls is about a half mile of trail and vendors.

Along the route we passed through Tropical Rainforest and Cloud Forest before reaching the higher altitude Pine Forest that surrounds San Cristobal de las Casa (note there has been severe deforestation but there are still significant areas of pine forest). Before arriving in San Cristobal, we made one last stop at a coffee plantation.

Arriving in San Cristobal we found that we had moved from the temperate altitude of 250' in Palenque to the much chillier altitude of 7200' in San Cristobal. (Note to self: Next time do not skimp on the warm clothes just because you think you are heading further south!)

Cathedral of San Cristobal
Our Guide and a very short but very Charming Mayan craftswoman 
A brief city tour took in the Cathedral, the Santo Domingo church with its large open air crafts market, and the more traditional local market with some especially appealing fresh beans and vaguely familiar looking fruits (that are in fact only related to ones we know). Many locals fear that photos steal their souls or put products at risk of not being sale-able so our photos from the market are limited. The tour ended with a visit to an Amber store where they shared the story of mining amber and turning it into polished jewels.

The fruit vendors peel oranges and end up with bunches of orange peel strings. 

We can’t speak to the average temperature and comfort in the area, we only know it was quite chilly while we were there. But apparently the Spaniards preferred the cooler, higher altitudes with San Cristobal originally being called Chiapa de los Españoles (Chiapa of the Spaniards).  In fact as we explored the city, we learned how the local Mayans were relocated to nearby Chiapa del Corzo,then known as Chiapa de los Indios.  It is at roughly 1000’, and far more comfortable in February, or at least this February…but more on that later.

In and around San Cristobal are several distinct Mayan groups including the Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Ch'ols and the Lacandon with each group speaking significantly different Mayan dialects. A daytrip took us to the Mayan towns of Chamula (to explore their market), and Zinacantán (noted for it’s textiles). Our timing was great as in both towns there were special religious ceremonies in progress (that were somehow tied into the Lenten period. Again, photos discouraged. Sigh.

Live poultry for sale at the market in Chamula
Gorgeous embroidered bedspread for sale in Zinacantán
Traditional ceremonial headdress for Mayans in Zinacantán
Another day trip took us to the Grutas de Rancho Nuevo (a large cave system) and Amatenango del Valle (noted for its pottery, particularly the jaguar figurines).

We also visited:
  • Some Orchid Gardens (a bust in February. We saw a few begonia blooms…)
  • Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar), originally part of a seminary later became the home of Franz Blom and Gertrude Duby Blom. Franz was an explorer and archeologist and Gertrude was a journalist and photographer. They collected tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing, especially related to the Lacandon Jungle and people which are displayed at Na Bolom along with some of the Blom’s personal items.
  • Sergio Castro’s collection of Mayan costumes.

Sergio Castro and a small selection of his collection
For a historical note: In 1530 (or so) Diego de Mazariegos founded the San Cristobal as a part of Guatemala. It became a part of Mexico in 1824. San Cristobal became the center of political activism with the election of Samuel Ruiz as bishop of Chiapas in 1960…coincidentally Samuel is the Uncle of our guide, Patricio. Ruiz was extremely sympathetic and supportive of the local Mayans, called “Indios” by the Spanish. With the goal of uniting the indigenous peoples politically, he organized a statewide “Indian Congress” with representatives from the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal and Ch'ol peoples. Activism and resentment continued from the 1970s to the 1990s. Despite the activism, economic marginalization among indigenous groups remained high leading to the formation of a small guerrilla band (the Zapatista Army) led by a man called only “Subcomandante Marcos.” The group declared war on the Mexican Government on January 1, 1994 as NAFTA went into effect. The war was short lived but helpful in gaining attention to the issues.

Dining in San Cristobal:
  • 500 Noches (meals were good, nice selection of wine, we really liked the Dada 1-a blend with the bonarda grape)
  • La Vina de Bacco (wine & tapas, menu is limited so good for one visit)
  • Tierradentro (we really liked their pizza)
  • Cocoliche (good for one meal)
From San Cristobal we moved on to the much smaller (& much warmer) town of Chiapa del Corzo where we boarded boats to travel the Grijalva River through the Sumidero Canyon. The walls of the deep and narrow canyon reach as high as 1000 meters. Along the way we saw crocodiles, spider monkeys, We stopped for lunch near the the Chicoasén Dam which has 8 turbines, 2 of which are sufficient for typical power needs. However, if Mexico is competing in a world soccer match, it can take most of the capacity of all the turbines.  (The latter could be an urban legend, but it is what we were told.)

Grilled Mero fish for lunch near the dam

We flew to Cancun from Chiapas and spent several nights in Puerto Morelos, which is more of a community than most of the neighboring towns which have become full-scale resorts. A day trip from there took us to Tulum and Playa del Carmen. There are several good restaurants in town. We particularly like La Sirena… and Richard’s Bistrot.

Tulum is a small mayan site with a spectacular setting...It's a beautiful spot built on a seaside cliff overlooking the Caribbean, and the ruins are impressive but it’s small.
One of its most popular sites, the Temple of the Frescoes, contains a number of frescoes that represent the rain gods Chaac and Ixchel. Travelers cannot enter the building, but the frescoes are visible from a viewing area. We also recommend the Temple of the Descending God and the Kukulcán Group, which holds several smaller structures, including the Temple of the God of the Wind.

Play del Carmen is now shopping-central…but feels more like a carnival than a real shopping destination. so we checked it out, but we didn't stay long....

From Puerto Morelos we drove part way across the peninsula to Valladolid, an old Spanish city. We took a tour of the town and learned about the founding of the city and the 
Caste War, an interesting period when the Yucatan attempted to become independent of Mexico. The tour ended at the Convent of San Bernardino… where we enjoyed a lightshow with the convent as a screen.

The next day we visited a fabulous Folk Art Museum, Casa de Venados. Not only is it a museum, it is the home of a very generous couple. 

A Nativity scene at Casa de Venados

A pottery jar with exquisite detail of colorful insects
at Casa Venados
Painting in the cupola off the courtyard of Casa Venados

We took a busy day trip to Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve to see the flamingoes, pelicans, blue herons, and other birds.  Along the way we observed several crocodiles along the shoreline. On the return to Valladolid we stopped at Ek Balam a small site under excavation where you can wander among and climb the pyramids and temples. Also residing here are a number of iguanas. 

On the way back we stopped at Ek Balam...

And of course, we visited Chicen Itza, discovered… restored as an inspiration to tourism and to excavating more sites in Mexico.  ..... And no trip to this area would be complete without a visit to Chicen Itza. An early morning start got us to the site before the crowds. We discovered that this restoration was an inspiration to tourism and for excavating more sites in Mexico.  The site is impressive from the opening pyramid, El Castillo, to the many vendors who dot the paths. Do not miss the immense ball court, the observatory and the intricate carving throughout. And a few more iguanas.

By the time we left, before noon, the site was crowded with tourists

From there we moved on to Merida, another colonial town.

On the drive to Mérida we stopped at Izamal for a look at the second largest Catholic facility (next to the Vatican).  We checked into our hotel near the Santa Lucia square and Late lunch La Recova,  one of several restaurants located in the square. We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the the central square. 

The Mérida City Tour was a good overview of the city highlights and history. Many of the  large homes now serve as event facilities, You can see and feel the European connection that has been present since the early conquest. There are private cenortes and in the town center The Fernando Castro Pacheco murals in the Palacio del Gubernador depict the local history, We ate lunch at Oliva’s Wine Bar and after a walk around center and markets we had dinner Chaya Maya.

We visited Uxmal on Friday. The site is impressive on a grand scale. The large structures spread over a significant area included the  rounded Pyramid of the Magician, the very steep Great Pyramid, the immense Governor’s Palace, as well as the ‘dove cote and Turtle House.  There is significant artwork on the structures that is well preserved or restored. This is one site that is worth the trip from Mérida and was not crowded even at midday like Chicen Itza, The chocolate museum near the entrance to Uxmal was also interesting.  We returned to Mérida and had lunch at Apoala and later strolled around the center visiting more shops and markets.
The "Dove Cote" or "Pigeon Loft" Complex, Uxmal
Saturday we visited the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya,a very  impressive history of the Yucatan and Maya from the meteor that formed the Yucatan through the 2500 plus years of Mayan history. The story is told in Spanish, Mayan, and sometimes English. We enjoyed another great meal at La Recova and an evening walk through the central squares. 

Regarding our visit to the Yucatan, I view it as the "anti-Cancun tour".  Overall we avoided the beach resorts and we found some great not-so-touristy spots.  And it turns out that there is still a lot of great options for those of us not into resorts...  And on our way back to San Miguel, we met up with our friends Roger & Sandy at the bus station in Mexico City where we had arranged to meet as they were enroute to our place for a week long visit.

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